Not Working by Lisa Owens: Book Review
How do you define yourself if you're jobless in a world defined by work?
That's the question that lies at the heart of Not Working, Lisa Owens' laugh-out-loud funny debut - and, let's be honest, at the heart of most of our lives.
Owens' heroine, Claire Flannery, is jobless by choice. In a search for meaning that will feel entirely familiar to many, she's resigned from her job in marketing to find her true vocation.
So far, that vocation has remained frustratingly elusive.
Not so that of her boyfriend, trainee brain surgeon Luke - the potential source of that other grown up badge of honour: marriage.
With skill, humour and disarming frankness, Owens skewers the dilemmas of an entire generation: how do you find the keys to adulthood when all the locks have been changed?
Buy Not Working by Lisa Owens
Buy Not Working by Lisa Owens on Amazon.com
Not Working by Lisa Owens: Extract
There is a man standing outside my flat wearing khaki-greens and a huge Free Palestine badge.
‘Are you the freeholder?’ he asks, and I turn to see if he is talking to someone else, but there is no one behind me. It buys me a second to remind myself which side of the Israel-Palestine conflict I am on.
‘I think so, yes,’ I say, and then with more confidence, because now I’m sure, ‘Yes, I’m definitely the freeholder.’
He scratches his neck, which is grey with dirt. His ears have the same ashy hue.
‘You need to get the buddleia removed. It’s a hazard.’
‘Oh right,’ I say, looking up to where he is pointing, to a plaster pillar on the front of the building, topped by an ornamental detail. I’ve never noticed it before, but now I’m embarrassed to see that the paintwork is cracked and filthy. If anyone had asked me to name it – if a million pounds had been resting on it – I would have guessed it was called a balustrade. ‘Does it not serve a structural purpose?’ I say.
He stares at me, tugging on his beard, which tapers into a slender plait.
‘It’s a weed. It’s not supposed to be there,’ he says, and now I understand: there is a plant sprouting from the top of the thing, a spray of purple flowers. It’s quite pretty.
‘And . . . sorry, who are you?’ I ask, wondering if he is from the council, a neighbour or an interfering passer-by. ‘Colin Mason, MBE,’ he says, and offers a dusty hand.
I hesitate for a fraction of a second before good manners kick in and I take it.
‘Claire,’ I say.
‘Shall I deal with it, then?’ he asks, nodding up at the buddleia. ‘I’ll do a bit of a paint job while I’m up there too.’
‘Mm, just . . . I’m going to have to talk to my boyfriend about it first. Because we share the freehold. How can I reach you?’
‘I’ll be around,’ he says. ‘You’ll see me about.’
I go inside to wash my hand and call Luke. A woman answers, his colleague Fiona.
‘He’s scrubbing up for surgery,’ she says. ‘Can I get him to call you back?’
‘Would you mind just holding the phone to him so I can have a quick word? Two seconds, I promise.’
There’s a fumbling noise and then Luke’s voice.
‘There’s a problem with our flat. A buddleia needs removing.’
I sigh. ‘It’s a weed. A purple flowering weed? The guy outside said it needs to go.’
‘He has an MBE. He was pretty adamant.’
‘So what do you want to do? Do you need to call someone? Can I leave it with you? Claire,’ he says, ‘I’ve got to go.’
‘Yes, leave it with me,’ I say. ‘What do you want to do for dinner?’
‘He won’t be home for dinner,’ Fiona says. ‘He’s going to be working late.’
‘Oh,’ I say. I think I’ll sit tight on the buddleia thing for a while; see if it develops.
Three women opposite talk about the weather as if it’s a friend they don’t much like.
‘And that’s another thing,’ says one, leaning in. ‘My no-tights-till-October rule has gone straight out the window.’
Her companions bob their heads, uncross and recross their nylon-clad legs.
My mother phones me on her lunch break. I can hear she’s in a cafe.
‘Where are you?’ she asks, as though she’s picking up a baffling background cacophony, instead of the silence in my kitchen.
‘I see. How’s the you-know-what going?’
She means ‘job hunt’: calling it the ‘you-know-what’ is, incredibly, less annoying than the question itself.
‘Yep. Fine. Just trying to crack on.’
‘Listen, before you go, what do you make of this? I had an awful dream last night that I saw Diane, the . . . Diane from work. It was definitely Diane, but in the dream I thought she was someone else, a stranger.’
Until now I have only heard my mother describe her as ‘Diane the black lady on reception’. I have a feeling there is more to come.
‘Funnily enough’ – this is said as though it’s just occurred to her – ‘I did see a woman who I thought was Diane yesterday in town, and went to say hello but then realized it wasn’t her.’ She laughs. ‘Claire, what do you think? Do you think she would have been offended?’
‘Who,’ I say, because I can’t resist, ‘Diane, or the person you thought was Diane?’
‘The other lady. Not Diane. Do you think she would have known that I confused her with someone else, with another—’
‘Another woman of colour?’ I help her out.
‘Oh,’ my mother says, ‘I don’t think that’s very PC. I don’t think you can say “coloured” nowadays.’
A few seats down the carriage, there’s an old man knitting, bald and cosy in a big white woollen cardigan. I smile at him and raise my eyebrows, and when I do, I see the earrings, purple dangly ones, and realize it isn’t an old man at all but a woman, not so old, my mother’s age maybe, who has lost all her hair. She grins at me, the needles clicking away, and I keep my eyebrows up, smiling hard at my hands, which lie still in my lap.
After the mains are cleared away, the waiters – who are really just teenagers – bring out dessert: bowls of melting ice cream and fruit swimming in syrup. I’m sitting at the children’s table with the other children. (We’re all over twenty-five.) My cousin Stuart, who beneath his suit jacket is wearing a ‘No Fear’ T-shirt, asks me what I’m doing these days.
‘I’m working that out,’ I say. I’ve had a lot of wine: it keeps coming and I keep drinking it. ‘I quit my job two weeks ago so I could take a bit of time to try to figure out why I’m here. Not in a religious way, but I believe everyone has a purpose. Like, how you were made to be in computers. That makes total, perfect sense.’ I stop, worried suddenly that he’s a normal engineer and not a software engineer, but he nods.
‘Marketing wasn’t your calling, then.’
‘Creative communications,’ I correct him.
‘Won’t lie: I never really knew what that meant.’
‘It . . .’ I prepare to launch into an explanation, then realize I may never need to again, ‘doesn’t matter anymore.’
‘There aren’t any spoons,’ Stuart says, and I beckon one of the teenagers over.
‘Could you bring us some spoons, please?’ I am indignant that I should even have to ask, and my tone is pleasingly chilly. The boy waiter smirks. When he comes back, he’s clutching a bouquet of knives, which he releases in a silver cascade in front of me.
‘No spoons left,’ he says. ‘No forks either. We’re really busy today.’
I shake my head. ‘Unbelievable,’ I mutter to Stuart as we dole out the knives. I slice off some of the shrinking ice-cream island and carefully li it to my mouth. I look across to the table where my poor grandmother is sitting. Her husband of sixty years is only just in the ground and she’s licking a speared peach-half like a lollipop.
During coffee, Stuart’s dad, my uncle Richard, gives a speech about Gum. He pokes gentle fun at the pride Gum took in his ‘war wounds’ – the scars from his many operations.
‘He really did love to show off his war wounds,’ I say to our table. My cousins nod and smile, murmuring agreement. ‘And more!’ I continue, pointing down at my lap and laughing. ‘Even after the heart op.’
‘Whoa,’ says my cousin Faye. ‘What? Gum used to show you his . . . ?’
‘Oh – no, no. “Show” makes it sound . . . It wasn’t . . . I don’t think it was really on purpose or anything,’ I say. Everyone is looking at me. No one is talking. ‘Honestly, it definitely wasn’t a big deal. At all. I always thought it was— Did no one else have this? How it used to just kind of slip out?’
Faye is shaking her head. Her ears, poking through her thin blonde hair, have turned red. I glance around at all the other cousins’ faces; most are gazing into their coffee. I dump a packet of sugar into mine and stir it with the knife I saved from dessert.
At night driving on the motorway, my lights won’t turn on, but each passing car has theirs on full beam, dazzling between fretful stretches of darkness.
Context is everything
‘The buddleia (or buddleja),’ according to one website, ‘can either be a beautiful flowering garden bush attractive to butterflies or a vile, destructive, invasive weed.’
I take the bus to the gym I can’t really afford anymore. I choose a seat by the window and try to make progress with my book. (I have been reading Ulysses for nearly nine months.) When I’ve read the same paragraph five or six times, I look up, desperate for some relief from the words. An old guy in a powder-blue jacket with long, sparse hair is coming slowly down the aisle. He looks around for a seat, but they’re all taken and no one gets up, so like a stoic he sets his mouth and grips the handrail next to him. I think about offering mine, but I’d have to ask the woman next to me to move. She looks important, smartly dressed as if she’s going to a meeting. She’s reading through some notes and I don’t want to disturb her, or make her feel bad that she didn’t offer up her seat. I go back to Ulysses and, burning with the effort of pretending I haven’t noticed the old guy, I finally make it onto the next page. When the woman next to me gets off, the old man stays where he is. I watch him sway and shuffle with the movement of the bus, dancing in his orthopaedic shoes.
At the gym, I try to get out of my contract.
‘You’ll need to wait until the thirtieth of the month to hand in your notice, and then your contract will end two months after that,’ the woman whose name badge says, ‘Frankie,’ tells me. It’s Halloween and she is dressed as a witch, with a hat, a cape and her nails painted black. Underneath the cape, she’s in a shiny black unitard.
‘But the thirtieth is a full month away,’ I say. ‘Can’t we just pretend it’s yesterday?’
‘If only!’ she says, rustling a tin of retro sweets at me sympathetically. I take a packet of Parma violets and crunch them two at a time.
She looks at her records. ‘I see you still haven’t had your Full-body MOT. Shall we do that now, as you’re here?’ I had been putting it off until I got fitter because I wanted to get a better score than Luke, but it’s been two years and if I’m leaving, I might as well get it done. She comes round from the reception desk and ushers me to a table, taking her plastic broom with her.
In response to the questionnaire, I tell Frankie that I don’t drink any alcohol or coffee, and that I sleep for nine hours every night. My blood pressure is good and so are my resting levels, but when she tests my aerobic fitness on the treadmill, I’m so eager to impress that I nearly slide off, and my vision goes dark while I gasp for breath.
‘How often did you say you come here?’ Frankie asks, looking at her clipboard. ‘Have you thought about a personal trainer?’ By the time I leave, I’ve signed up to three one-on-one sessions with a PT named Gavin, at a specially reduced introductory rate of £99.99.
Buy Not Working by Lisa Owens on Amazon.com
I’m not sure if my mother has been storing up material for our conversations, or if it’s part of the process of grieving for her father, but these days when she phones, she seems to have an awful lot of awful news to relate.
‘Pippa from church, in the choir – you do know her. The husband, an atheist – you wouldn’t have met him. Slipped and fell in the shower: it’s touch-and-go whether he’ll walk again. I’ve sent Dad to John Lewis to buy one of those mats. You can’t be too careful.’
And: ‘Gordon two doors up from us, well, his son-in-law, the policeman – I told you, remember? Depressed. Several attempts, over the years, but they thought he was over all that. Anyway,’ she sighs, ‘it would seem this time he did succeed.’
My next move
I go to a cafe to get out of the house, and bring my laptop so I can do some career research. There is a table of about eight women, all with babies, and a couple of them are breastfeeding. They’re talking about how hands-on their husbands are, and while their one-upmanship makes me slightly suspicious, I can’t deny that the women look great. Their skin is fantastic, and the babies are all so sweet – tiny, quiet and content.
I’m surfing arts websites for jobs, but don’t know what I’m looking for and all my searches keep returning sales roles, or executive positions way above my earning bracket. A woman comes in who looks about my age, balancing a toddler on her hip, a little girl. The two of them are in matching Breton-striped tops and jeans, and when she orders a coffee, she actually has a French accent. She sits at the table next to me and the child is off: behind the counter, under the table, climbing up the stairs marked, ‘No entry.’ She is delightful; the baristas don’t mind at all.
I click on a description for a heritage job, which involves writing the blue plaques on buildings where notable figures used to live. I could definitely do that, I think, sum someone up in a couple of words. I consider how I would blue-plaque people I know: Luke = ‘eminent physician’; Paul = ‘pioneering artist’; Sarah = ‘educational innovator.’ I have a harder time with the ones who work in PR and management consultancy, and decide that’s because they probably wouldn’t deserve a blue plaque anyway.
The toddler is at my table, holding out her arms and waving both hands from the wrists, beaming. I do the same and she laughs, runs away, buries her face in her mother’s lap saying, ‘Maman, Maman!’ and the mother, who might in fact be younger than me, bends over to murmur a stream of French into her daughter’s bright bobbed hair.
‘Maybe I should have a baby.’ I’m loading the dishwasher after dinner, and Luke laughs.
‘Right, I meant we should. But I’ll be the one having it, won’t I? I could be a stay-at-home mum.’
‘I thought you were finding your purpose,’ says Luke. ‘I thought that’s what this was all about.’ He makes an expansive gesture at ‘this’, as though the kitchen is somehow part of my plan, as though ‘this’ is where I spend all my time now.
‘Maybe my purpose is to be a mother?’
Luke nods, wide-eyed, pushing out his bottom lip, thoughtful but ultimately unconvinced. He beckons me over and I sit on his knee, loop my arms round his neck, rest my chin on his shoulder.
‘I think I’m going to take French classes,’ I say. ‘Build on what I learned at school. It’s a shame to let all that knowledge go to waste.’
‘Mais oui,’ says Luke, shrugging my face round to his. He French-kisses me, which means we’ll end up having sex.
Six p.m. on a Thursday, and while I may not have applied for any jobs, I have made myself eligible to win a Mini Cooper, two nights in Paris and seven in Miami, £500 of vouchers for a Scandinavian clothing brand, an enormous TV (which I plan to sell on), an espresso machine (which I’ll definitely keep), tickets to three exhibitions, a case of Prosecco, a juicer, a designer handbag, a designer coat, a meal for two at a corporate-looking restaurant in the City including a cocktail on arrival but no wine, membership to an independent cinema franchise and a VIP package for two at a female-only spa, so no one could argue it’s been a completely wasted day.
Paul, my friend from university, is back from a stint abroad that took in Berlin, Tokyo, Vienna, Johannesburg. He’s a conceptual artist of growing repute: I’ve started seeing his work mentioned in blogs (even if I always find them via links on his own). We arrange to meet at a dive bar we frequented in the old days after we’d graduated. I’d traipse into London from my parents’ house in the suburbs to interview for positions whose criteria my patchy employment history – waitressing, child-minding – fell some way short of fulfilling. Afterwards we’d sink bottles of wine and bemoan our lost youth (we were twenty-one) and rail about how life wasn’t fair: what more could we do? Why wouldn’t someone give us a break? But while I was spamming every arts, advertising and media organization I could think of with my CV (regardless of whether a job was on offer), Paul was secretly receiving scholarship offers from prestigious art schools all over the world. When I found out, two weeks before he left for New York, I felt deeply, righteously aggrieved. How dare he harbour such dreams? Who had given him permission to aim so high? Who did he think he was?
He arrives wearing big boots, their laces agape, beard full and his newly grown-out hair pulled up into a little top-knot.
‘Congrats on dropping out of the rat race, little one,’ he says. He also pats me on the head, a paternalistic bit he always does – it’s ironic, but still, he does it every single time. ‘After all those years of empty threats! What made you go through with it?’
I tell him about the day I was seized by a powerful impulse to start swallowing things on my desk: drawing pins, lumps of Blu-tack, whatever fit in my mouth.
‘I got as far as putting a paper clip on my tongue before realizing there was another way. So I spat it out and went to my boss’s office to quit.’
‘How did he take it?’
‘She was on holiday, so I had to wait another two weeks. But as soon as I’d made the decision, it was as if . . . I’d been holding my breath for years without knowing, and finally I could let it out. And I didn’t have to swallow so much as a staple.’
‘Suicide by bureaucracy: I like it,’ he says, slow-nodding in approval.
‘Hey, that’s a freebie. Have it for your next show.’
‘Mm. It’s not really my kind of work. But thanks,’ he adds, eyes shrinking into a smile.
There are ladybirds everywhere; I keep stepping on them and having to clean up their crushed bodies. They’re getting in through the sash windows and startling me when they fly too close, buzzing in my face like tiny drones. Luke says he hasn’t seen any and I wonder if they might be haunting me, or if it’s just that I’m spending too much time in the house.
The year my dad’s company relocated, we had to move, and the pavements in our new neighbourhood crawled with ladybirds. I was ten, and the only friend I made that summer was a boy named Jeffrey who lived next door. One of his longer-term projects involved collecting hundreds of ladybirds in a big Branston Pickle jar over several weeks. When it was full, he dropped a lit match inside. I don’t remember what happened next: it’s possible I walked away to the sound of them popping, but it’s equally likely he put the lid back on, extinguishing the flame. Big ideas, poor execution, that was kind of Jeffrey’s style.
I look up ‘ladybird sash windows’ online and am gratified by the number of search results. ‘They are overwintering in your window frames,’ asserts Quizking2, who has a three-out-of-five-star user rating on the forum. I look up ‘overwintering’. ‘Hibernation and migration are the best ways to overwinter,’ Wikipedia recommends. Both sound pretty good to me.
I agree to go to a party hosted by one of Luke’s friends from school. This group are all City boys except for Luke: they’re in chinos or dark jeans and crisp shirts, and their girlfriends are variations on a tanned, thin theme. I feel their eyes on my hair, which is flatter than I’d like, and my dress, which in the bathroom mirror looks a bit cheap. I drained my first glass of Prosecco within five minutes of arriving, and – angling my glass to catch the eye of the pourer – accept a top-up every time the bottle comes near.
‘Such a shame you guys can’t come to Marbella,’ one of the girlfriends, whose name might be Lou, is saying. ‘Luke works too hard. He needs a holiday.’ This is the first I have heard of ‘Marbella’ as a plan, and I can’t think of anything worse. I’m surprised and pleased Luke has counted us out without making me be the bad guy for once.
‘Yes, a real shame,’ I say. ‘Next time, for sure.’
‘Definitely,’ says maybe-Lou, scanning the room. ‘I’m just going to . . .’ she says, and slips past, not bothering to finish making up an excuse.
I take a seat on one of the enormous leather sofas next to a long dish of wasabi peas, and toss a couple into my mouth. One of Luke’s school friends, Nish, joins me. He has his collar turned up and is wearing sunglasses on his head even though we’re indoors and it’s night-time. Notwithstanding, he’s a nice guy, good at keeping things going when the conversation starts to flag. He’s definitely the best one of Luke’s friends.
‘Watch out, they’re like crack,’ he says, nodding at the dish.
I look at him and reach for a fistful more, which I trickle into my mouth. My eyes stream as I grind them down.
‘What’s new?’ I ask through the burning grit. ‘Any scandals?’
He fills me in on what he knows. Everyone is getting married: he points out four newly engaged couples and complains about how hard it’s getting to muster the required excitement with every new announcement. Nish is single and shares my ennui at what we dub the ‘endless parade of the engagement brigade’.
‘My theory is, it’s like grandparents dying,’ I say. ‘When it happens to someone else, it’s sad in a vague, universal sort of way, but essentially you don’t really care. When it happens to you, though, it’s the biggest deal.’
‘Yes!’ says Nish. ‘Exactly!’
‘My granddad just died,’ I say. ‘Good to know you don’t give a shit.’
Nish laughs and shoulder-barges me.
‘So what have you been up to?’ he asks. I tell him about the blue-plaque role, that I’m thinking of applying.
‘Maybe I’ll get my own blue plaque one day,’ I say. ‘Claire Flannery, Blue Plaque-smith lived here.’
‘Meta,’ says Nish. ‘That didn’t take long, then, finding your raison d’être. Didn’t you only quit your last job a few weeks ago?’
‘I’m just exploring my options. I might not take it.’
‘If you get it,’ he says.
My glass, frosted with salty, greasy fingerprints, is empty. I wave it at Nish. ‘We have a situation.’
While he’s gone, I keep working through the wasabi peas. I can’t stop palming them into my mouth. Nish returns, having hustled an entire bottle of Prosecco from the kitchen. I cough in an attempt to mask the pop of the cork, but end up turning a few heads with my performance. The two of us laugh and clink glasses, brazening it out.
‘I think I’ll skip this round,’ Nish says, leaning back into the sofa. ‘Of marriage, I mean. Wait for the second wave once everyone’s divorced, have my pick of you lovely ladies once the competition’s diminished.’ He says ‘you lovely ladies’ in a joke-sleazy voice.
I suspect that maybe, encouraged by the fizz, Nish has taken a shine to me. I am hyper aware of his denim thigh against mine, his eyes on my face, his hot breath.
‘You can do better than a washed-up divorcee!’ I say, feeling charming, irresistible. I haven’t felt this way in a really long time.
‘I’ve always liked you, Claire,’ he says, smiling now. His eyes are glossy, and his head lolls towards me, puppyishly.
Luke finds us a while later, me with my head on Nish’s shoulder, his arm around me, the empty bottle at our feet. I feel Nish tense up.
‘Our taxi’s waiting. I’m getting it – are you coming, or are you too comfortable?’ He’s joking – I think he’s joking – and I throw my arms around Nish’s pink-shirted middle.
‘Nish’s the best!’ I say, and grin up at Luke, who stands with his hands in his pockets. I get up and finish the wasabi peas, the tiny, runty grey ones I’ve rejected until now. I’ve had, perhaps, hundreds.
‘You didn’t ask if I was ready to go,’ I say as I follow him out. ‘You just went ahead and booked a taxi. You always do that.’
‘You never want to leave.’
‘I didn’t even want to be there in the first place. You should be happy that I wanted to stay,’ I say, tripping slightly on an uneven paving slab.
‘Stay and flirt with Nish? You’re right. Why wouldn’t I be delighted with that?’
Back at home when I take off my bra, three wasabi peas skitter on the floorboards. I kiss Luke, but he rolls onto his side and turns off the light as though he hasn’t noticed I was making a move.
The next day, I feel dreadful: dehydrated, and as though my insides are scorched. No amount of water seems to help. We play a lacklustre set on the public tennis court near our flat; the balls keep flying at me like giant wasabi peas in a nightmare. Luke wins easily, 6–0, despite giving even less than I am.
‘I’m never eating those things again,’ I say. ‘I’m never drinking again either. The party wasn’t worth this.’
We have pasta for dinner with a mountain of Parmesan. Luke pours himself a glass of wine.
‘Sure I can’t tempt you?’ he asks.
‘Go on, then,’ I say, and I even take a refill.
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed
Hard to believe it, but there was once a time when I would iron my clothes on a Sunday afternoon, hang them up, crisp and ready, for the working week ahead.
Four new emails, none personal.
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Opposite me sits a youngish man reading a maths book with a university library stamp: pages and pages of equations, it seems. I could be with someone like that, if things were different, if I were single, I think, admiring his slender fingers and strong, dark brow. Bookish (glasses), arty (festival wristband), outdoorsy (tanned). Head for numbers, I can only assume, or at least showing a willingness to improve, and God knows I’m no good with them. His hair, though – a huge, springy mass, which is longer and thicker than mine – would have to go. I try to imagine him with short hair and no glasses, and realize he looks exactly like Luke.
What actually becomes of all this terrible art for sale in cafes, costing the earth?
‘Did you ever do anything about the thing and that guy?’ asks Luke, who is sprawled on the sofa.
‘Going to need a few more details,’ I say with my back to the static roar of the football, painting my nails at the coffee table (a time-consuming but so far effective regime to make me stop biting them).
‘The weed in the wall. The OBE guy.’
‘MBE and, it turns out, the buddleia isn’t a weed a er all, or in any case, isn’t always a weed,’ I say, hoping that’s an end to it – but no.
‘So what are we going to do about it, then?’
‘You heard me.’
‘I didn’t!’ (I did.)
‘What are we doing about the buddleia thing?’
‘Not sure,’ I say.
‘Ignoring the problem, hoping it goes away?’
I poke the brush into the bottle so I can glare at him unhindered. ‘Thanks very much for the vote of confidence. I’ve been looking into it – I’m not going to get something ripped out of our home before I know what we’re dealing with.’
‘OK. So, what are we dealing with?’
I return to the varnish, reciting what I’ve learned: ‘The buddleia was first introduced to Britain from China in the, uh . . . something-th century as a decorative garden plant, but has since gone rogue owing to its highly dispersible seed. It thrives in urban, disturbed and neglected sites, such as railways, canal banks and old stonework.’
‘Go on!’ says Luke, sitting up now, and though I could very easily continue, the surge of the crowd from the TV confirms he doesn’t mean me. Instead, I blow on my manicure to set the top coat of a shade that someone – on a payroll, at a desk, in an office somewhere – saw fit to name ‘Sizzlin’ Saucepot’.
I begin my application for the blue-plaque job exactly two hours before the midnight deadline. One section of the form requires me to nominate an historical figure for consideration under the scheme. All the good ones I can think of already have a plaque, so blind desperation – or inspired brilliance; only time will tell – leads me to the Reverend Adam Buddle, an eighteenth-century cleric and botanist in whose memory my new friend the buddleia was christened.
I read aloud to Luke, ‘“Buddle spent many years working on an English Flora. He completed it in 1708 but it was never published.” Isn’t that sad?’
‘But he discovered a plant – I reckon that’s better.’
‘He didn’t actually discover it. Someone else did, years after Buddle died, and named it in his memory. Buddle never even knew it existed. He was in fact more of a moss man,’ I say.
‘If an unpublished book and gardening hobby is all it takes to get a plaque nowadays, what about my uncle Ian?’
I can hardly hear Luke above the racket he’s making: riffling through the cutlery drawer, pulling plates out from between other plates, hurling cupboard doors shut.
‘I’m already not feeling great about this: please don’t make it worse. there isn’t enough time to start again.’
‘Claire, you’ve been talking about this job for ages. I don’t understand why you’ve left it so late.’
‘If you want to be helpful, instead of incredibly unhelpful, stop crashing around and tell me this: what other words can I use to do with heritage?’
‘“Old”,’ says Luke, ‘“history”, “historic”, “past” . . . No, wait, “the past”?’
‘Or leave?’ I suggest.
He does, with full mug and plate, the fruits of his deafening kitchen concerto, but moments later, from the living room he calls, ‘“Posterity!”’ – and actually, that’s not a bad shout.
I get the application off with three minutes to spare. Afterwards I read it a few times over, pleasantly surprised by how good it is: I’ve transformed a handful of flimsy biographical details into quite a compelling argument. I’m particularly proud of my closing statement: ‘It is fitting that Buddle achieved posterity through the very medium he championed in his lifetime. He is not only a credible candidate for a plaque in his own right, but a powerful embodiment of, and argument for, the concept of heritage itself.’
‘That last bit,’ says Luke, ‘feels like it might be a bit of a stretch.’
‘I’ve already sent it.’
‘And stretching is good,’ he says, hands on hips, sinking into a wide-legged lunge.
Before Luke, I was embroiled in a long non-relationship, where I’d be summoned via text late at night to Shepherd’s Bush. I’d make the fifty-minute journey across town every time just to lie next to a man who preferred to kiss a joint, and caress his guitar.
In the morning, I reread the heritage application, expecting it to fire me up for a productive day of job-seeking; but minus the eleventh-hour adrenalin, and plus the effect of three cups of coffee, it’s far from the typo-free triumph I’d hoped.
A phone call from my mother; her voice is low and quailing.
‘Mum, are you OK?’
‘Did you tell Faye that Gum’ – she takes a breath – ‘exposed himself to you?’
‘What? No! Oh my God. That’s not—’
‘I’ve just come off the phone with Dee,’ she says. Dee is her sister, my aunt, Faye’s mother. ‘She said that at the funeral – at your own grandfather’s funeral – you were making God knows what kind of claims about him. About my father.’
I try to explain that it was probably accidental, that it usually just popped out in the bathroom. I say ‘popped out’ a few times, to play up the atmosphere of spontaneity. I tell her I’d had too much wine at the wake, and maybe I’d made it sound worse than it was.
‘The bathroom?’ she says, her voice getting higher. ‘Why would you have been in the bathroom with Gum?’
‘To look at his war wounds,’ I say. A terrible thought occurs to me.
‘You haven’t told Grandma, have you? Or Dee – she wouldn’t have said anything, would she?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Good. There’s really no need for her to know.’
‘Just the rest of the family.’
‘I’m sorry, Mum,’ I say, and I start to cry. ‘I’ll ring Faye; I’ll ring Dee and tell them it really wasn’t a big deal. He never touched me, I promise.’
‘I can’t talk to you right now. I need some time,’ she says, and hangs up the phone.
We’re in a restaurant with my oldest friend, Sarah, and her newest boyfriend, Paddy, an outing that took many weeks to organize given Luke’s schedule. The boyfriend, whom I’ve only met fleetingly twice before, doesn’t look at Luke or me throughout the meal and directs his few words into the space between us. He works in ‘industrial interior design’ – what this entails is no clearer after ten minutes of interrogation during our mains.
‘So tell me: is that like factory design?’ I ask.
‘Not really,’ he says.
‘Not really,’ he says, then in the same monotone concedes, ‘kind of, maybe, it depends.’
‘What . . . materials do you work with? Wood?’
‘Metal?’ Luke asks.
‘Both of those, yeah. Wood, metal . . . stuff like that,’ Paddy says. It’s the chattiest he has been all evening.
‘So you work with your hands,’ I say firmly, pleased to be getting somewhere.
‘Not really. It’s more kind of concept-driven.’ There’s a silence and I nod as though all is now abundantly clear.
‘What’s . . . your favourite thing about it?’ I take a long swig of wine. I have been drinking more than my fair share; I must be two glasses ahead of everyone else.
‘The hours aren’t bad.’
‘And how . . . did you . . . end up in that area?’ is from Luke. Good one, I think, and nudge him with my knee. He squeezes it in reply.
‘Just fell into it, really.’
Sarah is oblivious, delighted by the fact we are finally double-dating and on even more strident form than usual. She corrects Luke when he mispronounces the word ‘epitome’ and laughs longer than the mistake deserves, while Paddy gnaws on his fingers. His nails, I notice, are even worse than mine: red and stumpy and sore-looking.
‘Now there’s someone who gives nail-biters a bad name,’ I say to Luke on the way home.
‘If she was really as clever as she thinks she is, she wouldn’t be so desperate to prove it all the time,’ Luke says. Hard logic to argue with, but the criticism annoys me nonetheless. I turn silent, going slightly too fast for him to comfortably keep up on the walk from the Tube station to our flat.
A parked car is shining in the road, lacy with suds. I nearly trip over the bucket beside it, brimming with dark water. A film of soap scum slow-swirls on the surface. I didn’t think anyone still washed their car by hand.
When I was a child, my father’s windscreen was always spattered with shit. We must have lived under a busy flight path – or maybe there were more birds around then. Every couple of months when it got too dense, Dad would pull on his odd-job jeans and head out with a bucket and the yellow sponge, a primordial-looking thing that was older than me. I’d beg him to let me help, but after a while I’d start to whinge about my soaking cuffs and cold hands. Once, my mother appeared in the driveway with a plate of chicken nuggets, fresh from the oven, and fed me one with her fingers. I had just started to call her ‘Mum’ instead of ‘Mummy’ and stopped holding her hand in the street. The chicken burned, and I sucked down fresh air, flapping my wet hands in front of my mouth while I fought back tears I didn’t understand.
I look around; there’s no one in sight and no door open to any of the nearby houses. I pick up the bucket and toss the water over the car, so the suds won’t dry and leave spots.
A few rings and in comes the smug automaton: ‘Sorry, but the person you’ve called is not available.’
‘The person’ is my mother and she’s screening my calls.
‘One stupid comment when I was a bit drunk and she’s acting like I said he molested me!’
‘You did sort of did say that, didn’t you?’ Luke butters some toast, apparently confident the stir-fry I’m cooking won’t satisfy his appetite.
‘No!’ I lift the lid and check the rice. It’s still very far from done. ‘What I said was, when he showed me his war wounds, I o en saw more than I’d bargained for.’
‘Can you not hear how that could sound a bit . . . off?’
I think about it. ‘I can see how someone could interpret it that way; but it isn’t at all how I meant it.’
‘How did you mean it?’ He takes a bite of toast – half the slice in one go – and drops another piece of bread in the toaster.
‘I don’t know. Funny?’
‘Funny “ha, ha” or “peculiar”? The distinction is pretty crucial.’
‘Both. You met Gum – he was a funny character! My uncle’s speech at the wake was all about his little foibles.’
‘Little foibles.’ Luke smirks. ‘I hope you didn’t call them that.’
‘Don’t be gross!’ I go to kick him, but he’s too far away.
‘Seriously, Claire, it is pretty odd. If my sister told me our granddad had done that, I would have said it was weird.’
‘Yeah, well, I didn’t have a brother to point things out to me, and I’m still fine, aren’t I? It’s not some dark secret I’ve carried with me all these years – it was just a thing that happened. OK, a slightly weird thing maybe – but it’s not like I’m scarred. The moral here is, I should say nothing, ever.’
‘Well, at least you learned something,’ says Luke, while I grind chalky rice grains between gritted teeth.
The principle of the thing
The frothed milk in my latte is – don’t ask me how – so stiff and solid the spoon’s standing up unaided. I know there are worse things going on in the world, but that doesn’t mean I should suffer in silence and drink, or, rather, eat this.
Personal Trainer Gavin has a cheesy Friday-night vibe – the sort of guy who frequented my teenage weekends. He sings along to the music with impeccable timing when the lyrics are exercise-relevant (pain, directions, journeys, challenges, distances, heat, thresholds, et cetera), and I’d be willing to bet considerable sums that in his leisure time he wears vigorous aftershave and juts his chin to the beat in dark, flashing bars while clutching a whisky and Coke. I like him, his enthusiasm and the by-numbers flirting he no doubt employs with all his female clients. He makes me nostalgic for a simpler time.
‘Got the day off, then?’ he asks, post-warm-up, leading me to the mirrors for some ‘floor work’. It’s a reasonable question at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday.
‘Yeah,’ I say. Then to discourage further probing, ‘Is this a busy time for you, usually?’
‘Nah, weekday afternoons are pretty quiet. We get some new mums in wanting to lose the baby weight, and some of our older members. The young professionals like yourself tend to come early mornings before work. Try a squat for me, Claire.’ He guides me down by the shoulders. ‘Tuck in the tailbone. Lovely.’ I try not to inch as he readjusts my pelvis. ‘Let’s have ten of those.’
Gavin leans, arms folded, back against the mirror while I hunker down. At the nadir of number six, he twists the knife. ‘So what is it you do?’
I know in my heart it’s an innocent question, but right at this moment, confronted with my squatting reflection, thighs quaking in ancient translucent Lycra, the answer Well, I’m just searching for my purpose simply isn’t an option. ‘I actually work in finance,’ I say.
‘Awesome.’ Gavin nods as if this is what he expected – and absurdly, I’m flattered.
We finish the session with a treadmill sprint, and Gavin starts to roar above the music. ‘I want you! To give me! One hundred! Per cent!’
Obediently I thumb up the speed control, puffing and clenching my teeth so he’ll think I’ve hit my limit – but there’s no way I’m giving this my all. It’s absolute madness not to hold something back: that’s just basic common sense.
An engineer is sifting through the multicoloured innards of a green metal cabinet on my street. So that’s where all the wires have gone! I hear music, like the strain of a violin, but as I get closer, it turns out to be just one long, mournful note: the dialling tone keeping us all connected.
In the local Co-op, I buy some Diet Coke. At the till, I hold up my debit card.
‘How will you be paying?’ the cashier asks.
‘Uh, with this?’ I say, waving the card.
‘Chip and PIN, or contactless?’ he says.
He picks up a Kit Kat from a pile next to the till, scans it and slings it into a plastic bag.
‘I don’t want that. I don’t want a bag either.’
‘It’s free. Free Kit Kat when you pay contactless.’ He points to a sign that says this verbatim.
‘But I don’t want it,’ I say, and he winces in disbelief.
‘Why wouldn’t you want a free chocolate bar?’
‘Because,’ I say, ‘I don’t want it.’
‘There is no why. You either want something or you don’t. That’s what want is.’ I smell a wave of mint: he’s chewing some gum. He can’t stop shaking his head. ‘Everyone else has taken it. I’ve scanned it now. Why don’t you give it to your boyfriend?’
‘I don’t have a boyfriend,’ I say, to wrong-foot him.
It’s going to look bad next time I’m in here with Luke.
You’d think after all these however-many years I’d have learned to open fizzy drinks at arm’s length, just in case.
Beg to differ
‘I’m not saying it’s not a good job; I just wonder if it’s definitely what you had in mind when you quit the old one. The whole point was that you’d spend some time thinking about what you really want to do, and I worry you’re investing a lot of hope in a role that might not be right anyway – just another quick fix – and you’ll end up stuck and frustrated again in a couple of months . . .’
Luke and I are on our way out and I’ve stopped in the hall to shuffle through months’ worth of junk mail in case I’ve missed something from the blue-plaque people.
‘It’s the first thing you saw, essentially by accident, and you applied one minute before the deadline – that doesn’t scream, “Dream job,” to me. Also, by the way, you’re not going to find anything there. Who doesn’t use email nowadays?’
‘Uh, Pizza Palace? Great Wall of China? AAA1Taxi? Domestic Angels? Hollywood Sushi?’ I hold up each flyer, then drop them on the floor.
He bends to retrieve one. ‘Sushi! Let’s have sushi. That’s exactly what I want.’
‘And you said I wouldn’t find anything,’ I say.
We pass a couple on our street embroiled in a back-bending clinch.
‘Is it reasonable to say,’ I begin, ‘that it’s the least attractive couples who are the most intent on flaunting their sex lives?’
‘Hm,’ says Luke. ‘I’m not sure it is OK to say things like that.’
‘But it’s true. If I can’t say it to you, who can I say it to?’
‘Your mum?’ Luke suggests.
My mother, if she would only answer the phone, would almost certainly agree with me. Which means Luke is right: I probably shouldn’t be saying it.
Buy Not Working by Lisa Owens on Amazon.com
I phone Grandma to tell her I’m coming to visit. It rings out three times before there’s an answer, and when it comes, the voice is like a cartoon old lady’s, creaky and frail.
‘Grandma? It’s Claire!’ I say loudly, worried I’ve woken her.
‘Claire,’ she says faintly, and I wonder if she knows who I am in the moment. There is a pause and a fumble – I guess she is swapping the receiver to the other ear. I picture it, enormous in her bony hand, the same phone she would have picked up when Gum died and she called her children to tell them, one by one. The wait while the rotary dial ticked back round to zero, the silence before the call connected. Grandma’s telephone is from another time, when people used the word ‘telephone’ and had important things to say.
‘I wanted to check you’ll be in later! I’m going to drop round this afternoon!’
‘Stop shouting,’ says Grandma, fully herself again. ‘I won’t be in. I have a date. Mustafa is taking me to lunch.’ Mustafa is Grandma’s Turkish neighbour, a widower whose name is really Erdem, but who tolerates Grandma’s lazy racism because he’s a good guy who can see what a kick she gets out of it.
‘Oh,’ I say. I had expected her to be delighted I was coming. ‘How about tomorrow, then?’ There is a pause that goes on for so long I say, ‘Grandma? Does tomorrow work?’
‘Tomorrow isn’t great, but I can squeeze you in – shall we say half three?’
‘Let me see . . . Half three could be tricky,’ I say, though my day is free. ‘I’ll have to move a few things around . . . No, no, it’s fine. I’ll make it work,’ I insist above her half-hearted protests.
‘You’ve lost weight,’ she says the next day, as I stoop to kiss her soft, creased cheek.
‘You always say that. If I’d lost as much weight as you claim every time, there’d be nothing of me left.’
‘Oh, I don’t think there’s any fear of that,’ says Grandma, heading into the kitchen, where scones are cooling on a wire rack.
‘Delicious,’ I say, reaching for one. ‘I hope you didn’t go to this trouble just for me.’ She swats at my wrist with a tea towel.
‘Indeed I didn’t. I’m having the girls round for tea. They’re coming at five. That’s why I said, if you remember, that today didn’t really suit. Here.’ She hands me the biscuit tin. I open it and peer in at a few sorry digestives lying at the bottom. I take a bite of one; it’s lost any crunch it may once have had, and tastes of damp, but I finish it anyway.
We sit at the kitchen table drinking tea from mugs that used to be red but have turned a whitish pink through decades of dishwashing cycles.
‘I hear you’re having a bit of trouble finding a new job,’ says Grandma. ‘How long has it been now – a month?’
‘I’m not having trouble.’
‘Was the old one really so bad you couldn’t wait to find something else before you left?’
‘I was afraid if I waited, I might never get out. That job was never meant to be my career – I was just so relieved someone out there was willing to hire me.’
‘Mm,’ says Grandma.
‘And then, suddenly, years had passed, and I knew if I was going to get anywhere, I had to leave. I need this time to take stock.’
‘I see! Well! All right for some.’
‘It’s not like that. I have savings.’
‘Faye got another pay rise – did you hear? Would you ever think about accountancy?’
‘Numbers aren’t my strong suit.’
Grandma nods. ‘You must have got that from your father’s side. Here.’ She pushes the biscuit tin towards me. ‘Have another,’ she says in a kindly, compensatory tone.
‘I’m fine, thanks.’
She sighs. ‘They were your grandfather’s favourite. Never liked anything I made as much as those.’ Along with most of his generation, Gum hated waste. When I stayed with my grandparents as a child, anything I left on my plate would boomerang back next mealtime: grey carrots at breakfast, cornflake-milk mush at lunch, sandwich crusts at dinner. Gum wore the same pair of sandals every summer for thirty-four years, and famously stopped talking to my mother for weeks in the wake of a guerrilla clearout, when she binned multiple food items so old they pre-existed sell-by dates. Grandma told me at the funeral she knew the end was nigh when he started throwing away teabags after only one soak. ‘It was as though a light had gone out,’ she said.
‘So, is there anything I can do to help while I’m here?’
Grandma raises a hand and strikes it dismissively through the air. ‘You can’t do anything. Just drink your tea.’ ‘Are you sure? I could change your sheets, or do some cleaning, or . . . run down to the shops if there’s anything you need?’
She’s shaking her head.
‘Stuart changed the bedding with me this morning. And Faye comes and hoovers once a week. The twins take it in turns to help me with the shopping – you’d be no use: you can’t even drive.’
‘I can drive, Grandma. I passed first time, remember? I just don’t have a car.’ I wonder if senility is maybe setting in. In the eyes of the family, passing first time has been my greatest achievement to date. My mother failed three times, and Grandma herself took five attempts – and that was in the old days when everyone passed.
‘Same thing, isn’t it? What’s the point of having a licence if you don’t bother to use it? Finish the biscuits, that’s what I’d ask you to do.’
‘Oh, go on, then.’ I dunk a broken piece in my tea and half of it dissolves and disappears. ‘Please have a think about something I can do. Laundry? Some gardening?’ I had no idea my cousins were so considerate: I’d always believed myself to be the thoughtful grandchild. I feel bad that I’ve done nothing, while they’ve seemingly been running her household between them. They must think I’m terrible.
‘You can cut my toenails,’ Grandma says.
‘Yep, yes, sure, OK,’ I say, straight in. ‘I can definitely do that. You mean now?’
‘Claire,’ Grandma says, ‘I’m joking. You don’t help out – that’s fine; it’s how you are. I remember what being your age was like – of course, I had four children under eight then, but modern life is different. You’ve got an awful lot on.’
At home that evening, I’m still seething.
‘She wouldn’t even let me put on a wash for her! It’s not fair, telling someone they don’t help when they’ve just offered to do absolutely anything for you!’
‘Speaking of washing,’ Luke says, ‘I’m nearly out of clean shirts.’ He raises a hand when my mouth drops open. ‘I only mentioned it because I’m putting one on, and wondered if you had anything that needs doing.’
‘Please,’ I say. ‘You haven’t done a single load the whole time we’ve lived together. This isn’t the time for grand gestures.’
‘I love you,’ Luke calls, as I storm into the bedroom to gather the laundry for a white wash.
It’s the little things you miss: free pens, notebooks, coffee, the colour printer. The incidental conversation.
On my way back to the at from another cafe stint, I see a woman around my age sitting on the kerb, gripping handfuls of hair and racked with sobs. I think about approaching her to ask if she’s all right, but then remember an article I read about someone who was stabbed after asking a teenager to be quiet on the bus. My mother’s mantra rings loud – Don’t get involved! – and for once I listen. As I draw level, I give the girl a supportive half-smile/half-grimace, and she looks at me through red-rimmed eyes, choking on huge, gasping breaths.
At home, I feel terrible and ring Luke. He’s laughing as he answers; I can hear a female voice in the background.
‘Hey,’ he says. ‘What’s up?’
I tell him about the girl. ‘What do you think?’
‘You left her there on her own?’
I snatch up my keys. ‘Is that bad?’
‘Her parents must be going crazy. Did you ring the police?’
I pause on the stairs, one foot dangling mid-air. ‘Her parents?’ Then I realize. ‘Hang on, she’s our age.’
‘Ohhh. You said girl. I assumed child.’ I sink down onto the stairs, rest my head against the banister spindles. ‘Well then,’ he continues, ‘she’s probably fine. Maybe she had a fight with her boyfriend or something.’
‘Mm,’ I say, chewing at the skin around my little finger. ‘Maybe.’
‘If you’re going to lose sleep over it, why don’t you go back and ask her?’
‘I might get into something too big to handle – I mean, she was really upset,’ I say. ‘Hey, what was so funny?’
‘You were laughing when you answered the phone.’
‘Was I? Oh. Can’t remember. Probably nothing.’
When we hang up, I run back downstairs to see if the girl is still there, but she’s gone.
Sleep and wakefulness bicker all night and I think, Why can’t you two just get along?
Buy Not Working by Lisa Owens on Amazon.com
My ex-colleagues invite me to a bowling night to celebrate three birthdays that all fall in the same week. There are drinks at the office beforehand. It’s the first time I’ve been back since I left, and the place is different, though I can’t work out what’s changed. I go and look at my old desk, which is now immaculately kept by my successor: a young (but balding) gun named Jonathan. His default expression is one of sulky surprise, which I put down to the premature departure of his hair, because he’s certainly not at all curious to meet me.
‘I’m Claire. I used to be you,’ I say, holding a hand out to him, ‘or you’re the new me, depending how you look at it.’
‘You didn’t do digital, though,’ he says, hooking a small plastic bag onto the wrist of my extended hand, before taking my fingers in a limp, damp shake. ‘Did you?’
‘No.’ I’d spent much of my last year dodging digital, insisting that it wasn’t in my skillset. ‘What’s this?’
‘You somehow managed to miss all that stuff when you cleared out my desk,’ says Jonathan, typing so fast he looks like he’s faking, though I can see on his monitor he’s not. His WPM rate must be insane. I look in the bag, which is weighed down with coppers and small denominations of foreign currency. There are also some kirby grips, a disintegrating London A–Z, a bunch of receipts and some payslips with my name on. I notice a few of the latter have been opened, something I never bothered to do.
‘You really didn’t need to keep this, but thanks anyway,’ I say. ‘You could have chucked it.’ I have so many similar plastic bags at home, full of not-quite-rubbish I can’t bear to throw away.
‘Do what you need to do. Wait.’ He reaches over to his corkboard and unpins a sheaf of paper. ‘Also yours.’
I flick through it and my face burns. They’re all the personal emails sent in error to my work account since I left: weeks and weeks’ worth of invitations to brunch and dinner parties, and a thread entitled ‘Tuesday Drinkies’, ten-odd pages of my school friends’ plans to meet up for a drink. A glimpse of the final page reveals the discussion has devolved into farmyard-animal puns.
‘Wow,’ I say, ‘don’t you have my new email address? You can just forward this stuff to me.’
‘Somewhere,’ he says, resuming his virtuosic typing. ‘I thought it would be easier this way. Do it all in one go, post them on to you with that other stuff. None of them seemed like they were that urgent.’
‘Well . . . delete anything else that comes in, will you,’ I say, dropping the emails in his recycling box.
At the bowling alley, there’s a company tab. I feel bad availing myself of it and end up buying a round for eight people that makes my heart race when I hand over my card. No one even knows I paid for it – they hardly say thank you when I set down the tray.
I open with a half-strike that turns out to be a fluke: my next five balls go straight in the gutter.
‘How’s the job hunt?’ my old boss, Geri, asks, frowning at her bowling shoes while we await our turn. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen her in flats.
‘Slow, but it’s going, just about. I don’t want to rush into anything, end up somewhere I don’t want to be.’
‘We must have been paying you too much,’ she says, ‘if you can afford that luxury!’
‘I have savings. Anyway, some things are bigger than money.’
‘Striiiike!’ she says, thrusting her index ngers high as Jonathan’s ball blasts through the pins. He’s turned away already, swigging a beer. ‘Aw,’ she continues, patting my knee, ‘we do miss you! Jono’s brilliant, an absolute whizzkid, but between you and me, he can’t make coffee for shit.’
When I leave, everyone is dancing. ‘9 to 5’ has come on the jukebox and I slip away as they all join in with the chorus, feeling like a fraud. On the Tube home, I pull out the payslips from my little plastic bag, and see one of Jonathan’s has got in by mistake. I’m pleased until I open it and see he’s on only a grand less per annum than I had been, even though he’s twenty-two and I was in the job for over six years.
I log into Luke’s emails to see if we’ve paid the gas bill: I have the gas supplier’s reminder letter open on the table as proof. My eye alights on an email dated three weeks ago, from his colleague Fiona: no subject, just a link to some article from a medical journal. She has signed off ‘xoxo’, which makes me think even less of her.
Colin Mason, MBE, has erected some scaffolding outside our building. It doesn’t look in the least official or sturdy, and seeing him creaking around up there makes me a little nervous. I hurry past, not wanting to be drawn into conversation, but he’s either forgotten who I am or has no further business with me.
The next day, the scaffolding has gone, but the buddleia remains, waving gently in the breeze.
More than forty years since man walked on the moon, yet still no truly viable alternative to bread.
Eating lunch with Sarah in a cafe near the school where she works, she talks about Paddy and how happy she is. Her experience of him seems so far removed from the sullen nail-chewer I’ve encountered thus far that I have to confront the possibility my judgement might be wide of the mark this time.
‘I’ve never met someone who knows so much about everything. The other day, right, I told him about my hay fever and he said I should eat local honey to counteract the symptoms. Local honey.’ She’s shaking her head. ‘He doesn’t even have hay fever himself.’
‘I’ve heard that before,’ I say, and then, ‘Oh my God, so weird: this has happened before. You and me, sitting here talking about this, me telling you I’ve heard about local honey before.’
‘No,’ says Sarah firmly, leaving absolutely no room for debate. ‘It definitely hasn’t happened. I’d never heard of it until Paddy told me.’
‘I know,’ I say, annoyed. ‘It’s called déjà vu? This is the second time it’s happened to me this week.’
Sarah looks at me and grips my wrist, interrupting the rise of my salad-laden fork.
‘Claire, I don’t want to freak you out but I think you should maybe go and see a doctor. Do you smell burning?’
I sniff the air. ‘No? Maybe? Is something burning?’ I say. ‘I can’t tell if I only think I can now because you mentioned it. Why?’
‘Talk to Luke,’ she says. ‘It’s probably nothing at all to worry about, and I might not have got this right, but I feel pretty sure I read somewhere that frequent déjà vu is linked to brain tumours. And the smell of burning.’
‘So there’s a little bit to worry about,’ I say, certain I can feel something hard expand inside my skull.
I ring Luke to sound him out.
‘Start from the beginning. Forget about anything you’ve read online and give me the facts.’
I tell him about my lunch with Sarah, about Paddy and the local honey.
‘Right . . .’ I detect a twist of impatience.
‘You did say to start at the beginning,’ I remind him, but to keep him onside, cut to the déjà vu. ‘What do you think? Be straight with me: I can take it.’
‘Second time this week?’ He doesn’t sound even slightly concerned.
I say, ‘At least. Part of the issue with déjà vu is the feeling itself being so uncanny: it’s hard to separate it into different instances.’
‘OK, let’s back up a bit. Have you had any headaches? Problems with your vision?’ I consider this carefully. ‘Hangovers don’t count,’ he adds.
‘Well . . . there’s a general sort of background throb, but I’ve always put that down to, like, life.’
‘We’ll talk more when I come home,’ says Luke, ‘but in the meantime, don’t worry.’
‘Don’t worry, we’ll get through this, or don’t worry, there’s nothing to worry about?’
‘The latter,’ he says, gearing up for a yawn.
‘And is that your personal or professional opinion?’
‘Ignore the email I just sent you, then,’ I say, referring to the dossier pulled together from my afternoon’s online research.
When I had a job, I used to fantasize about what I’d do if I didn’t have to work anymore. Go to the gym every day, get really fit, train for a marathon perhaps. Finish Ulysses, read Moby Dick and one of the big Russian guys. Get to grips with the economy, also modern art.
I still haven’t registered with a doctor in London, despite Luke’s incredulous nagging and the fact I’ve lived here for nearly eight years. Luke remains entirely unperturbed by Sarah’s diagnosis, but just to be finally, unequivocally sure, I make an appointment to see our old family doctor.
‘Claire,’ says Dr Patterson when I enter, ‘it’s been a while. What seems to be the problem?’
I say, ‘It’s probably nothing. I don’t really know why I’m here.’
His bedside manner hasn’t changed: an off-putting blend of amusement and scepticism. His smile deepens when I get to the déjà vu, via a number of arduous caveats.
‘First things first: are you pregnant?’ he asks.
One hand ies to my stomach, the other to my head. ‘I don’t think so. Is this a symptom of pregnancy?’
‘Well, no,’ he admits, ‘but a woman of your age . . . Let’s say it doesn’t hurt to rule it out as part of any health conversation. You’re sure?’
‘Certain. I can’t be. My boyfriend – partner – and I are very safe.’
Dr Patterson chuckles. ‘You’d be surprised how many times I’ve heard that from women who turn out to be some way along.’
‘Is that true, then, about déjà vu being linked to brain tumours, or . . . ?’ I ask, trying to sound not bothered either way.
‘Been consulting Dr Google?’ He swoops in without warning, flashing a torch in my eyes. ‘I think you’ll be absolutely fine,’ he says, and as an afterthought asks, ‘No headaches? Dizziness? Sickness?’
I shake my head. ‘I just wanted to be on the safe side.’
He presses his lips together. ‘We all want to be reassured from time to time, don’t we? Often these worries can be brought on by stress. Are you having a busy time at work?’
‘It’s . . . it’s a bit complicated,’ I say. ‘I’m between jobs at the moment. By choice, I mean. I haven’t been sacked or anything.’
‘Ah.’ He takes off his glasses and sits back in his chair, huffs on the lenses and thumbs them with a hanky. ‘Sometimes, when we have too much time, we worry unduly about our health. If we don’t have the daily distractions of, say, a job or’ – he gestures to my stomach – ‘a family to look after, we might find our focus becoming quite . . . narrow.’ He blinks nakedly a couple of times, then replaces his glasses. ‘Insular,’ he adds, in case I’ve failed to recognize that this is the talk he gives the lonely people, who find excuses to come in for the company.
‘It’s just temporary,’ I say. ‘I’m waiting to hear about a few things.’ Though I’ve heard nothing since the blue-plaque deadline weeks ago, I remain optimistic about my chances.
‘Was there anything else?’ he asks.
I decide against telling him I wake in the night convinced I feel lumps in my armpits and breasts.
‘Not a thing,’ I say, smiling widely as I get up to go.
On my way to the train station a er my appointment, my mother’s car goes by: I’d know that slow-rolling Beetle anywhere. I raise my hand at its tail end, on the off-chance I’ve coincided with her once-in-a-journey check in the rear-view mirror. The indicator winks, and as the car heads right, her face turns to me before she trundles out of view.
‘I never thought I’d be a mother, and then you came along,’ she has said on more than one occasion.
An email, at last, from the heritage people informing me my blue-plaque application has been unsuccessful. They do not say why, but do say why they can’t say why (‘overwhelming response’) and express a friendly hope that my interest in heritage will nonetheless ‘continue to thrive’. They have misspelled my name.
When Luke gets home from work, it’s nine thirty. He’s startled when he turns on the light to see me at my laptop in the near-total dark and I imagine how I must look: hunchy, lemur-like, crazed.
‘You OK?’ he asks.
‘I didn’t get the job.’
‘The— Oh. I’m sorry. That sucks,’ he says, and other platitudes I don’t listen to as I turn back to the fruits of my post-rejection research: CV tips, information about funding grants for niche post-grad studies, Wikipedia articles about those niche post-grad studies subjects, nannying jobs, bar jobs, admin jobs, expensive intensive residential cookery courses, fast-track schemes for law, medicine, the civil service, agencies specializing in ski-season placements in Canada, Europe, New Zealand, Russia, programmes for living and working abroad in Japan, South America, China, the UAE. I have more than twenty different windows open, each displaying so many tabs my computer has taken the executive decision to file the overflow in cumbersome sub-tabs.
‘Do you want to talk about it?’ Luke asks.
‘Nothing to talk about,’ I say, hitting the power button and sighing out with the electronic shutdown chime.
How hard can it be?
Throughout my working life I’ve had emails addressed to: Clare, Clair, Clara, Cara, Kate, Louise, Catherine, Carol, Cleo, Caroline and Derek.
A lunchtime walk down by the canal, which lies flat and still as glass. There is no one around and for one tiny second I consider taking off into the water. The afternoon shivering as I’m swallowed up.